When badlands become good

The road loops around Yellow Mounds.
The road loops around Yellow Mounds. Photo: Julie Miller

One of the harshest places in the US boasts more than rattlesnakes, writes Julie Miller.

Dawn is breaking when we reach Door Trail in Badlands National Park, its jagged pinnacles silhouetted against a technicolour palette of pink, purple and orange splashed haphazardly above the horizon. As we make our way along the boardwalk, I am surprised to see we are not the first visitors; in the distance, nestled on a blanket spread on a flat-topped rock, sit an elderly couple gazing into the far-reaching moonscape.

Camera and iPad capturing the moment, this canny pair from Wisconsin have snaffled the best position to take in the sunrise, watching the rugged peaks and troughs, like the ruins of a petrified city, deepen to russet-red under the sun's illumination.

Bighorn sheep.
Bighorn sheep. Photo: Julie Miller

"We make a point of watching the sunrise together once a month," they later tell me, sipping on coffee and munching sausage sandwiches. "We travel a lot and visit many National Parks. But this ranks up there among the best. There's nothing bad about this!"

The Badlands is indeed an impressive piece of erosion, one of nature's most complex works of art. Located 120 kilometres east of Rapid City in South Dakota, the national park protects more than 98,000 hectares of rolling prairie land, as well as the striking geological formations that symbolise the wildest of America's Wild West.

Desolate, unforgiving and dangerous, this striped wall of buttes, pinnacles and spires sculpted by wind and water has been labelled "bad" since human occupation. The Oglala Lakota people, who used the area as hunting grounds, called it "Mako Sica" or "bad land", while early French trappers labelled it "mauvaises terres a traverser" (bad lands to travel across). Early pioneers who inexplicably chose to farm here soon discovered it was a bleak prospect, with blistering temperatures, unproductive soil and plagues of grasshoppers driving away all but the most resolute "homesteader". And many a hiker has been lost in its pathless depths, disoriented by the surreal landscape.

Rattlesnakes flourish in this harsh environment.
Rattlesnakes flourish in this harsh environment. Photo: Julie Miller

Surprisingly, many animals flourish in this arid environment, including bighorn sheep, pronghorn, coyotes, the rare black-footed ferret and (not so surprisingly) rattlesnakes. On its prairie edges, herds of bison roam free, while prairie dogs live in flatland "cities", guards popping comically out of holes to warn of marauding predators and camera-wielding tourists.

Other, long-extinct creatures also lie buried in the layered depths. The fossilised bones of tiny three-toed horses, hornless rhinoceros, saber-toothed cats, camels and land turtles point to a milder ecosystem of open woodland during the Ogliocene era; while marine fossils dating to 75-67 million years ago reveal the Badlands' origins as an inland sea.

For visitors with an interest in these vestiges of the past, the boardwalk Fossil Exhibit Trail features replicas of now-extinct creatures that once roamed this area. There are also daily ranger talks during summer months, a junior ranger program to nurture the talents of young scientists, and a fossil preparation lab - located next to the Ben Reifel Visitor Centre - where tourists can interact with working paleontologists, and even wash and brush recently discovered bones.

A woman takes a snapshot of the vista.
A woman takes a snapshot of the vista. Photo: Julie Miller

For most visitors, however, exploring the Badlands is all about soaking up those not-so-bad views. There is a choice of designated trails to popular viewpoints, some easily accomplished on boardwalks, while others require more effort and planning. With vicious extremes of temperature, foot exploration is best attempted early in the morning or late-afternoon when the weather is cooler and the light most conducive to photography. A hat, sunscreen and, of course, lots of water are essentials, as well as decent footwear.

For those with a head for heights, a helicopter tour at sunrise or sunset provides an eagle-eye perspective of this geological wonderland. Tours are priced by distance covered, which ranges from 10 kilometres at $54 a person, to 56 kilometres at $278.

Like the majority of tourists, however, much of my visit to the Badlands is spent in the airconditioned comfort of a motor vehicle. Fortunately, US national parks cater brilliantly for this lazy version of sightseeing, with well-signposted roads and easy access to the most spectacular lookouts.

The Pinnacles.
The Pinnacles. Photo: Julie Miller

The 64-kilometre Badlands Highway 240 Loop Road meanders through the northern reaches of the park, passing through dramatic, multi-coloured canyons, past towering spires, canyons and lunarscapes seemingly created by Hollywood, and dodging wandering herds of bighorn sheep and the occasional bison. A must-see is the curious Yellow Mounds - rounded, uranium-gold formations created when the inland sea drained away, exposing the fossil-rich soil to the elements.

And for the best sunset view, head to The Pinnacles, where views of savagely eroded spires, buttes and fissures stretch for kilometres on both sides of the road.

As night falls in The Badlands, so the ambience shifts to one of eerie serenity. With all but the most dedicated tourists departed, overnight guests at Cedar Pass Lodge have the landscape to themselves, back decks on rustic log cabins affording unparalleled, private views of the final frontier.

Inside these newly constructed cabins (the only lodging within the park) is also a revelation, with the walls and furniture - including glorious king-size beds - hand-crafted from recycled beetle-kill pine, a happy byproduct of one of the most devastating environmental problems in the Rocky Mountain states.

And at night there is another attraction - a twinkling sky, unsullied by the glow of civilisation. It's a reassuring reminder that even in a country with a population of more than 313 million, unadulterated wilderness and solitude is still there for the taking.

The writer was a guest of South Dakota Tourism and Rocky Mountain International.

THREE OTHER ATTRACTIONS NEAR THE BADLANDS

MINUTEMAN MISSILE NATIONAL HISTORIC SITE

Surrounded by a barbed wire fence in a remote, bleak location just outside of the Badlands NP, this is arguably one of the most bizarre tourist attractions in the United States. This was where the Cold War was fought; an underground dungeon where enlisted "missileers" literally had their finger on the button, ready to launch a missile attack on the Soviet Union if provoked. Now managed by the National Parks Service, this Launch Control Centre - one of 100 operating across the upper Great Plains from the mid-'60s to the early 1990s - gives a chilling view of a paranoia-filled era, with workers' duties described as "hours and hours of sheer boredom, punctuated by seconds of panic". Free 30-minute guided tours, led by a passionate historian with a great knowledge of the facility, are offered daily during summer, and Monday to Friday during winter (Nov-April). See nps.gov/mimi/index.htm.

WALL DRUG

To lure customers from the highway to their store in the tiny South Dakota town of Wall back in 1931, Ted and Dorothy Huckstead put up a sign offering free iced water. It worked; customers came. Expanded over the years and now run by Ted Huckstead's grandson, the store sells everything from western clothing to bobbleheads, with in-house attractions including an animatronic dinosaur, a rideable jackalope, a replica of Mount Rushmore and a western art museum. See walldrug.com.

PRAIRIE HOMESTEAD

This desolate part of South Dakota was one of the last places in the Great Plains region to be "homesteaded" and one of the first to be abandoned. This was a tough environment to farm. Built in 1909 by Ed and Alice Brown, this historic home gives an insight into a real life "little house on the prairie". Further the interpretive experience by dressing up in early pioneer attire (provided for free) and getting down and dirty with the friendly barnyard critters. You can also visit a little colony of rare white prairie dogs on the property. See prairiehomestead.com.

TRIP NOTES

GETTING THERE

United Airlines has a fare to Los Angeles for about $1555 return from Sydney including tax.

Fly to Los Angeles (14hr), then to Denver (2hr 17min) and then to Rapid City (1hr 18min).

Melbourne passengers pay about the same and transit in Sydney; see united.com.

The Badlands are located 120 kilometres south-east of Rapid City. Entrance fee is $US15 ($17) a car, valid for seven days. Australians must apply for US travel authorisation before departure; see esta.cbp.dhs.gov.

STAYING THERE

Cabin accommodation at Cedar Pass Lodge costs $US150 a night plus tax for two adults, an extra $15 a night for an additional person. Children 15 and younger free. Open April 12-October 15. See cedarpasslodge.com.

MORE INFORMATION

npd.gov/badl; travelsd.com

walldrug.com

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